As a school principal in San Francisco, I spent Wednesday mornings at 9:45am meeting up with hordes of potential Kindergarten parents in our cafeteria to do a little Q&A session for the final 15 minutes of their tour. Most groups asked the same questions about art, music, science and how the school responded to bullying.
Parents wanted to see colorful, high quality art on the walls, clean facilities, and warm classroom environments where they could picture their child thriving. They checked out sites like Great Schools and fretted over test scores and demographics. When I entered the madness of touring and the SFUSD lottery for myself last year, I had the benefit of an “insider’s” view. Cute, clean facilities were only a small part of my lens, test scores and demographics even smaller.
Here are the top 6 things I considered when selecting a school for my own child:
1. Three or more classrooms per grade
If a school only has one or two classrooms in Kindergarten, then you and your child are committed to the relationships that form over the next six years. This can be a wonderful thing for many families, as they grow close, really get to know one another, and create the classroom bond that can be so magical in elementary school.
But what happens if your child develops a little frenemy? What if a clique emerges that your own kid is not a part of but has ongoing issues with socially?
When a school has at least three or more classrooms in a grade, these issues never dwell for more than a single academic year. The new school year provides a natural opportunity for teachers to thoughtfully break these dynamics up and give all the students a chance to forge new bonds and start over. And trust me, they do.
2. A single language pathway
I was all about Spanish Immersion for my own child. My family is Colombian and nothing would have made my heart sing louder than the sounds of my own daughter speaking fluent Spanish to our relatives far away, or dazzling them at our next family reunion. But unfortunately many schools only have smaller “pathways” in a single site, alongside English Plus classrooms.
From a school leader’s point of view, the effects of this have been very challenging and include everything from trouble getting teachers equal or similar resources to implement school-wide initiatives, an additional challenge for teacher collaboration, and an inability to mix up class groups each year (see the bullet point above). I did pursue immersion for my own child, but only at schools that had the pathway school-wide.
3. Positive adult culture
As much as we want to imagine that schools are magical, happy places where each and every adult is 100% about the students, every school is run by human beings and human beings sometimes have conflicts with one another. Some schools have strong adult cultures under stable, consistent leadership where trust is extremely high and conflicts are worked out proactively, intentionally, and out in the open. Other schools have struggled with staff turnover and leadership transitions that can make relationships more fragile.
I paid close attention to what I saw, heard or knew about staff cultures and made sure to select schools where I felt confident these were the strongest. What’s the best way to find this out if you don’t have a mole on your side? Step inside the staff lounge if you can and pay attention to the feel of it. What’s posted on the walls? Who is in there? Do you see evidence of the latest potluck lunch, sign ups for the upcoming school event and systems in place to keep the area clean? Or has the place become another storage facility with piles of old, discarded classroom materials? Are staff members smiling, making eye contact and greeting you in the halls or hurrying past and looking frazzled?
4. Legacy of leadership and existing leadership
A school leader is critical in setting the tone of the school. They often serve as a buffer between their hardworking teachers taking on change after change and the school district that is doling out mandate after mandate. When there’s a shift in leadership, this buffer becomes temporarily weakened and mandates are put on staff without ample finessing and massaging that would otherwise help things roll out more effectively.
Even with a new principal in charge, the legacy of leadership has either set this individual up for success or not. And the new principal is either up to the challenge or not. Principals do come and go, so I didn’t base my decision on who was the sitting principal at the time. Instead, I considered past principals at that site and the longevity and legacy of leadership they have left behind.
5. Teacher collaboration time
A teacher’s time is so precious and so valuable, I am always asking how this resource is used in schools. Given the many competing demands on teacher time, many schools try to ask as little of them as possible in terms of structured, data-driven collaboration or attending too many meetings. The thinking tends to be that given sufficient time to lesson plan, grade, and make materials individually, collaboration and sharing will magically happen more informally. But this leaves collaboration at the mercy of chance, proximity and collegial relationships that are vastly different everywhere.
Students and families tend to experience very different educational expectations from year to year if teachers aren’t given regular, weekly, structured opportunities to collaborate under a common vision for instruction.
6. Commitment to inclusion
Finally, on a more personal level, our family was starting to learn about and cope with my daughter’s complicated, chronic illness that was just beginning to make itself known in preschool. It placed an additional burden on her two preschool teachers who were absolutely wonderful and on top of it throughout our ordeal. I knew that going into the public school system, the adult to child ratio was about to get much larger, so I had to put my feelers out there and seek out schools that had high levels of inclusive practices. Inclusion often means additional adult support in the classroom.
Also, like many San Franciscans bearing witness to the continuously shifting demographics of our city, I wanted a school that was intentional about relationship building amongst the parent community. How is the school ensuring differentiated support groups for parents who might represent a minority at the site? Are there multiple ways for families to meaningfully interact and forge bonds across difference? Yes, PTA fundraising is critical and can do wonders for a school site, but when it comes at the expense of marginalizing certain families that cannot attend an expensive gala or make large, public donations, the effects are unintentional but just as harmful. I cannot say for certain that any school’s PTA has completely figured this challenge out, but I do know of many that are at least asking these hard questions, being intentional and reflective about them, and trying their very best to create amazing opportunities for our kids in a manner that includes parent groups of all backgrounds.
The above six criteria existed in a wide range of schools, in all different neighborhoods, and with a wide range of test scores and demographics. Many schools in the Mission and Bayview are starting to see the fruits of their structured teacher collaboration time and more consistent, long-standing leadership, while schools in other parts of the city may be experiencing more transition than before.
Ultimately, choosing a school is about knowing yourself, your child and the values your family holds near and dear. This is different for everyone. Regardless of where you do end up, know that as school leaders, our deepest desire in working in schools is to serve our students and families well. I hope these insights help you consider another vantage point when touring prospective schools. Wishing all of you the best with the lottery this year!